“All you have to do is heed the design—the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow”: Morrison Firmament Essay

As I sit and type this essay and consider what I have learned, who I have become, what Morrison’s work has taught me, and how I will move forward, I have been faced with the realization that my journey of academe for my undergraduate degree is coming to an end, as is my time sitting in a classroom. It is a startling revelation that I am, once again, at the threshold of something new and thrilling, but something I ask myself… am I prepared for? The path before me is one I always anticipated, but I was never quite sure how to face the apprehension that precursed it. I am graduating in seventeen days, as I write this, and I will become a member of the workforce, I will begin graduate school, and in the next year, I will more than likely become a full-time teacher and become the one who guides students through the beauties, complexities, and inspiring world of literature. In these last two years I have spent at the State University of New York at Geneseo, I look back and feel gratitude for the knowledge and experience that I have gathered from mentors, peers, and experiences, and it is then I think on Morrison’s work, the both/and present within it, and the collaboration I have been a part of in the study of her work and all that it has granted me as I stand at the threshold of the rest of my life as an educator, a writer, a student, a thinker – a human being. In this collaboration and the both/and present in it, I have found appreciation for the craft of writing, admiration in being a part of a team, and kindness in my work. I have also found the both/and of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise’s alignment with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the various emotions and ideas present within it – using this both/and as a guide in my own future.

The first day of collaboration for the essay on Morrison’s Beloved was one that has remained in the spaces in between memories of fondness and knowledge in my mind. Having worked in groups before for academic assignments, I found that it was always accompanied by a feeling of dread that either I would not feel united with the group or my work would not be level with the group’s standards or expectations. Being a part of this collaboration was quite the opposite. Morrison’s work had a way of uniting the group with literary analysis, conversations in attempting to figure out certain meanings, or asking for guidance in writing on the findings. 

Morrison’s work has a brilliant complexity to it that always keeps one on their toes. The entirety of her writing is a pelago of text, so it was therefore essential to be consistently thinkING and to consider the both/and. With Morrison’s work, there was the both/and of both growth and pain, both horror and light, both wisdom and confusion, both isolation and collaboration. It is writing that at times has left me stranded and other times has been the rescue ship to an island of comprehension. In these collaborations, there was also the both/and of Dante and the relationships between texts. An example of this is in the collaborative essay of Morrison’s Paradise and Dante’s depiction of justice and the eagle’s brow. When the Eagle states, “Now who are you to sit upon the bench, / to judge events a thousand miles away, / when your own vision spans so brief a space?” (Par. 19.79-81), it is the question of divine justice and the lack of capability of humans to handle this matter, which connects to the both/and of the conflict around the Oven in Morrison’s Paradise and the both/and of interpretation and collaboration of its meaning. Similarly, in the collaborative essay regarding Morrison’s Jazz, it was the both/and of the seven terraces holding the three types of failed love – misdirected, deficient, or excessive – that directly connect to the both/and of Jazz’s Joe, Violet, and Dorcus and their intricate love triangle. It was the both/and of suffering and lust, pain and love, and forgiveness and hate. This coexistence, this both/and of emotions serves as “a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere” (Morrison 28) but still allows Joe and Violet to find their way back to one another. There is also the both/and of Beloved in Paul D’s imprisonment, which serves to emphasize Morrison’s examination of the contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno. In Paul D’s imprisonment chapter, Morrison parallels the imagery of Canto XVIII, using the both/and, and reverses the rationale behind the punishments administered in the Malebolge. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante implies that one is justly punished for the sins one committed in life, while in Morrison’s Beloved, it is argued that enslaved people are subjected to an undeserved, though similar torture. Through Paul D’s imprisonment, Morrison uses the both/and of exposing the institution of whiteness as they use their power to unjustly punish those they deem as inferior – which was discussed in the collaborative group I was a part of. There was both/and in all of Morrison’s work, and there was both/and that was present throughout the collaborative process.

In the question of what Morrison’s work has told me about the both/and of collaboration, it lies in one core idea: you must figure it out before you figure it out – using Morrison’s words. There is always something that you must understand and form connections with in order to connect it to something else – an idea, a thought, a discovery. Collaboration is bonded by understanding, growth, and patience. It is something that simply cannot be accomplished without standing at the threshold of something much larger.

I found Morrison’s work to be a doorway with an unknown destination waiting on the other side. The both/and of her work is the understanding and acceptance that part of that both/and will not be fully understanding. Prior to this class, I felt that I needed to understand. Not understanding, not having answers, and not knowing what was truly the ‘correct’ interpretation plagued my mind and abandoned me with helplessness and frustration. After reading Morrison’s work, it has granted me the gift of being content in not knowing – in not understanding. Perhaps the ‘thing I needed to figure out before I figured it out’ was simply the idea that a part of that both/and is fully comprehending what a text is trying to convey while simultaneously not understanding at all, at least not at first. Morrison’s work has thrown me into the unknown and kept me comfortable there. I think of Morrison’s words in Jazz as I think about what I have learned on the both/and collaboration of Morrison’s work, as she wrote “All you have to do is heed the design—the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow” (Morrison 9). These words sit with me as I consider all that Morrison’s work has taught me and all that I have learned in the collaborative process regarding her work with my peers in the class. As a group, on three separate occasions, the collaboration I was a part of regarding Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise has solidified my understanding of the both/and, and I have found that both/and within myself. 

As my own graduation with my Bachelor’s Degree approaches, I am once again standing at the threshold – this time, it is something so substantial, so terrifying, that I find myself hesitating before I inevitably walk through. I think of Morrison’s work as I am about to walk through, though, and find myself holding onto the insight I have gathered that I will bring with me in what lies ahead. In the upcoming years, I will continue to be a student until my graduation with my Master’s. I will be an English teacher. I will be a wife. I will be an artist. I will be a poet. I will be whatever else I find myself capable of. But with these titles, I carry with me several skills of the both/and. Firstly, both patience and forgiveness. Morrison’s work and the pelago that it is have taught me to have the both/and of commitment to understanding what I can and patience in not understanding what I cannot. Even in the group collaboration, there was a consistent, unspoken understanding that not knowing is precisely the power of the novel at hand and the reason the collaboration was happening in the first place. I have applied this patience and forgiveness to myself as a student in the last semester and will continue to apply it as I become the one to teach students. It was not until recently that I knew what it meant to have forgiveness with myself over work I did not understand – work that perhaps the whole point of it was to not understand – and I will be sure to inform my students of this same idea. It is okay not to know, as long as the both/and of kindness to oneself and allowing the not understanding is present. Collaboration will be a key component of my classroom, too, as I will aim to have the same style of group work that was present in ENGL 431 and encourage the same both/and of kindness, encouragement, and understanding in each group. There were countless moments in the collaborative essay-based classes of this class when I felt content with navigating work that felt foreign to me, as I had others alongside me who felt much the same way. There was unspoken guidance between us, amongst us, that I would love to carry with me as I navigate academe in a different environment.

Morrison wrote, “What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” and I think of this and the both/and I have learned from the collaboration of this class. I hold onto the both/and of fear and excitement for what the future holds as I hold Morrison’s words at my side. At the beginning of this class, for the Thresholds essay, I wrote of Virgil’s words in Dante’s Inferno: “I think it best you follow me / for your own good, and I shall be your guide / and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114) and I find it was Morrison and those in this classroom with me that served as the ‘guide’ through both/and Morrison’s works and this last semester of college. Collaboration has offered me the both/and of my own confidence in my writing, my understanding, and of myself. Why not “climb up this blissful mountain here” (Dante 76-77) and take the both/and of collaboration and apply it to all aspects of life thereafter? Why not be my own “special thing”?

“Make Me, Remake Me”: The Mapping of Purgatory and Morrison’s Treatment of Love and Healing

Taylor Bramhall, Frances Sharples, Jenna Brace, Sheridan Morgan, Joe Morgan, Hanah Myers, Olive Niccoli, Kya Primm, Dylan Walawender

Dr. Beth McCoy

ENGL 431: Conversations: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

1 April 2023

“Make Me, Remake Me”: The Mapping of Purgatory and Morrison’s Treatment of Love and Healing

Dante’s Purgatorio revolves around movement, and unlike the Inferno from which the Pilgrim and Virgil  emerge, or the Paradisio the former aspires to, Mount Purgatorio is not an eternal destination for any soul; instead, it provides those not yet pure enough to enter paradise an opportunity to cleanse themselves of their sins and move steadily, slowly, towards a position in heaven. Geographically, it is the inversion of the Inferno—a series of spiraling terraces, narrowing as they rise, leading souls in need of purgation from Ante-purgatory, where the excommunicated begin their climb to the mountain’s summit where they enter paradise. Here the pilgrim finds seven terraces, each corresponding to a different sin. The sins responsible for depositing a soul at any given level are further grouped under one of three types of failed love: misdirected, deficient, or excessive. The proud, envious, and wrathful are housed in the first three terraces of misdirected love. The fourth terrace is for the slothful and falls under the distinction of deficient love. Excessive love is the final grouping where the avaricious and prodigal populate the fifth terrace, the gluttonous the sixth, and the lustful fill the seventh (Musa).

In Dante’s recounting of his journey through the terraces of Purgatory, the reader is brought along through the many trials, obstacles, and figures that they meet; similarly, the prose of Toni Morrison sweeps us up into the journeys of each character in her novel, Jazz. The journeys of Joe—a man stuck in a loveless marriage who murders his teenage mistress—and his wife Violet are tumultuous and inspire much of the movement within the novel. Morrison projects many of these movements onto Dante’s map of Purgatory, connecting Joe and the other characters to their experiences with Dante’s different categories of failed love. This connection can be seen clearly even in comparing the physical layouts of Purgatory and Manhattan. The significance of Jazz’s geography and layout is not lost on its characters; the narrator states, “All you have to do is heed the design—the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow” (Morrison 9). In Dante’s Purgatorio, souls moving through Purgatory can move more quickly if they are prayed for by the living—a notion that plays an integral role in the movement and abilities of each character in Jazz.

As Morrison maps not only the setting but physical movement of each character through Manhattan and the various settings where the major plot points of the novel play out, the reader is reminded again and again of the geography of Mount Purgatory, where excessive love is situated at the very top, with deficient and misdirected love following, respectively. This movement is paramount to the novel’s plot and is referenced constantly; Morrison connects Joe and Violet to this movement in their desires and goals as they establish themselves in the city as a young couple and the narrator observes the many tribulations their marriage faces after this move. Morrison tracks Violet’s desires in her relationship with Joe by first establishing that the couple moved to the city to live toward the top of Manhattan, where excessive love is situated: “Up there, in that part of the City—which is the part they came for—the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool” (51).

Of course, the entirety of Jazz cannot, and is not, related only to the landscape of excessive love. Violet, who possesses misdirected love for Joe but receives deficient love in response, finds that she “can’t find a place where [she] can just sit down,” mirroring Dante’s pilgrim hood as she talks to Alice about the messy aftermath of Dorcas’ death. At the end of the novel, however, when these relationships have reached a resolution, there is peace in the presence of rest and stillness; Joe and Violet “walk down 125th Street and across Seventh Avenue and if they get tired they sit down and rest on any stoop they want to and talk weather and youthful misbehavior to the woman leaning on the sill of the first-floor window” (223).

As Joe and Violet’s relationship parallels the three levels of Purgatory, Morrison utilizes the mapping of Dante’s Purgatorio as a means of evoking and tracing the development of healing, to provide a narrative engine for atonement necessary to love. 

Misdirected love defines the first level of Purgatory. There are two dynamics of love: love for the wrong subject and a lack of sharing. Teodolinda Barolini notes that the sinners seeking purgation experience love for the wrong object, and a lack of sharing between lovers (Barolini “Visible Speech,” “Eyes”). This dynamic defines both the beginning of Jazz and of Joe and Violet’s struggles as a couple. 

Morrison embeds this design within Joe and Violet’s relationship early in the novel. Violet’s attempt at cutting Dorcas’ face during her funeral evokes both envy and wrath as a physical expression of pain toward Joe’s affair and the insufficiency she feels toward herself following Joe’s infidelity. After Joe murdered Dorcas, a distance forms between him and Violet, and she “decided to love—well, find out about—the eighteen-year-old.” She learned everything she could about the girl, going so far as to learn her favorite dances, and try to mimic them (Morrison 5-7). Wrath ultimately dominates Violet’s feelings. 

Joe and Violet’s feelings of sadness and rage—respectively—exemplify the lack of sharing and the misdirection of love. This is clear in their competing desires to look at Dorcas’ portrait. At night, both stare at Dorcas’ portrait on their mantel; Joe feels lonesome, regretful, and hungry without Dorcas, whereas Violet sees the girl as “an inward face…You are there, it says, because I am looking at you…not only is she losing Joe to a dead girl, but she wonders if she isn’t falling in love with her too” (Morrison 12, 15). Both Joe and Violet misdirect their love toward the dead Dorcas, and thus fail to engage with the harms both hold within themselves. Violet, especially, both envies and adopts Dorcas’s traits, expressing anger, envy, pride, and love toward the girl’s portrait by calling her self-centered. These feelings stem from the lack of sharing Dante touches on. 

At the core of both the affair and Joe and Violet’s faltering relationship is a failure to engage in the empathy that eases the Pilgrim’s movement through Purgatory. Joe in particular fails to engage with Violet emotionally, and performs the original act of misdirection. Joe notes that: “In 1925, we all had it made. Then Violet began sleeping with a doll in her arms… Make me know a loneliness I never could imagine” (Morrison 129). Though he acknowledges the way he has harmed Violet, Joe reveals, yet fails to notice, that his behavior created the conditions for misdirection. He fails to nurture Violet and to understand why she has performed—in his eyes—her own form of misdirection by sleeping with a doll. Instead, he retreats from and abandons her, feeling lonely and envious towards the doll. He then carries this misdirection further, eliciting an affair with Dorcas, whom he saw as a Paradisiac retreat from his wife (Morrison 133). In other words, Joe’s failure to reach out to Violet and share their sorrow and feelings, to find out why she slept with the doll and make steps toward healing their love, drives both the affair with Dorcas and the manifestations of wrath, pride, and envy that Violet exhibits at the beginning of the novel. Violet navigates the terraces of misdirected love as she feels envy, wrath, and a damaged pride after Joe’s affair; however, Joe performed the original misdirection by shifting his love toward Dorcas (the “wrong object”) and failing to nurture and engage with Violet. 

As the misdirected nature of the love between Violet and Joe fades, it morphs into something different: deficient love. The lack of love between the couple at this time in their lives stems from not only a lack of communication, but a failure at providing the love that each needs. Near the start of Jazz, one of Violet’s clients brings up Dorcas, inquiring about Joe and how he is handling his grief. Based on the bleak nature of Violet’s response, the client comments, “Can’t rival the dead for love. Lose every time” (Morrison 15). Here lies the root of Joe and Violet’s miscommunication, and why they are feeling a lack of love—when someone dies, especially someone as young as Dorcas, the mourner may put the deceased on a pedestal. Joe and Violet do just that with the “ghost” of Dorcas impeding their ability to love. When Violet learns of the death of Dorcas, she lashes out, desperately trying to recapture the love of her husband whose affections are no longer returned. On the other hand, Joe retreats into himself; when Joe met Dorcas, the love he once possessed for Violet reemerged with a vengeance, and now that she is dead, this love no longer has a tether. The weight of society’s pity for him can’t fill the void of the love that was lost, leaving Joe to stew in these tangled emotions. Where times of grief and death can cause relationship bonds to strengthen, Joe and Violet’s lack of communication comes across as selfish; instead of providing one another a shoulder to lean on, they are seemingly competing for whose romantic plight inspires the most sympathy, creating deficiency in their relationship. 

Dante touches on the topic of grief’s relationship to  love during an encounter with his old friend Forese Donati. When he first comes across his friend, Dante’s first instinct is to say, “‘When death was on your face, I wept,’ I said, ‘and now the grief I feel is just as great, seeing your face so piteously disfigured’” (Purgatory XXIII, 55-57). While Dante seems to express remorse for the state of his friend, it should be noted that the purpose of his journey is not to sympathize, but to see how his sins in life have either helped or hindered his ability to escape Purgatory. Forese’s wife, Nella, praying for him up on Earth is the only form of communication they have access to, and in doing so she is helping him ascend to Paradise. This is a stark contrast to the relationship between Joe and Violet, because they have not yet realized that the only way to reach Paradise is if they first reach out to each other. With the trajectory of their relationship correlating with the climb up Purgatory, their relationship eventually reaches a state of deficiency. Morrison foreshadowed this from the moment Joe and Violet entered the city—as they arrive, the narrator observes “they love that part of themselves so much they forget what loving other people was like—if they ever knew, that is” (Morrison 33). Deficient love hinges on an absence of love; by saying Joe and Violet will forget how to love other people, the narrator foretells the demise of their relationship. In other words, the city is Purgatory, and Joe and Violet have been there for so long that they not only have forgotten how to love, but what it feels like. When they must show love for each other, they are unable to, and the deficiency of that relationship causes them to lash out, driving Joe’s affair and subsequent killing of Dorcas or Violet’s attempt to disfigure her corpse, in order to recapture the love that became deficient.

The last variation of love, and perhaps the most prominent within Jazz, is excessive love—something that consumes both Joe and Violet in their obsessive behavior towards the deceased Dorcas. Joe, finding his love for Violet has died, admits it has “fade[d] or scab[bed] over” before he finds love elsewhere, in the young Dorcas (Morrison 29). Joe is clouded by his own judgment as he mistakes the sexual desire he felt for his lover as a connection as deep as the one he has with Violet. This desire consumes him , as “that girl had been his necessary thing for three months of nights” (Morrsison 28). He relies on her, allows her to consume him, and yearns to consume all of her in return. When their affair ended,  Joe “shot the girl … [and] cried all day” (Morrison 4). His excessive love and obsession for her drives him to kill out of gluttony and lust. If he could not own her, he could not find contentment with her life continuing. This excessive love consumes Violet as well, in her obsession with knowing who the woman was that her husband allegedly loved more than her. Violet knows not the personality that Dorcas had nor who she was, truly, and thereafter relies on the persona “she invented for [Dorcus] based on careful investigations” (Morrison 28). Dorcas is both her enemy and her deepest inner desire for self. She yearns to become the woman her husband desired so deeply – so much so that “the girl’s memory [becomes] a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere” (Morrison 28). This excessive love consumes the couple. Both Violet and Joe even create a shrine to Dorcas in the center of their home, as Morrison states “One particular thing the aunt showed her, and eventually let Violet keep for a few weeks, was a picture of the girl’s face. Not smiling, but alive at least and very bold. Violet had the nerve to put it on the fireplace mantel in her own parlor and both she and Joe looked at it in bewilderment” (Morrison 6). Joe is driven by his sexual desire for Dorcus to pursue her and then kill her to “keep the feeling going” while Violet keeps this feeling going through her obsession with knowing who Dorcas was and why she deserved Joe’s love more than she  (Morrison 3). Both allow this excessive love to break them down – but it is in their collective grief afterwards that binds them back together, broken, yet bonded.

In light of their troubled past, their reconciliation came as a shock to even the narrator: “I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it…busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human” (Morrison 220). Despite what we were told at the beginning of the novel, both the audience and the narrator discover that the couple does not endure another tragedy. Instead, Morrison demonstrates the upward movement and healing of the couple, mirroring Purgatory. While Joe and Violet endured an emotional detachment for a majority of the novel, the narrator reveals that the couple has reached a sort of reconciliation: “A lot of time, though, they stay at home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear” (Morrison 223). Unlike the times when Joe would cling to Dorcas for emotional validation, here, the audience recognizes that Joe and Violet broke the cycle of emotional neglect within a marital relationship, and thus returned to a love they built in previous years—not excessive, but devoted.

It’s hard, as students, not to get caught in the whirlwind of ideas, emotions, experiences, and explorations that follow us through our schooling. Students within the educational system continuously go through progression and regression of emotions for the educational system in their own unique and individualistic pathways. Similarly, Joe and Violet’s progression to paradise is not the same, though it leads them to the same ending. It’s often expected that the order in which students go throughout their first 20+ years is to: finish elementary, go to middle school, high school, and then go to college, but  people rarely make it that far.  There are different phases everyone goes through to get to their own paradise, whatever that may be. Joe and Violet went through experiences of misdirected, deficient and excessive love just as students have their own experiences; as this causes a nonlinear progression through education, there is an adjacent experience of self-discovery, and a movement toward achieving self-love. Ultimately, this self-discovery is what may divert a student’s education from the conventional path. When students experience these emotions, they are experiencing them in many different phases and ways that are not in an exclusive order.

Misdirected love manifests differently depending on the person. Joe and Violet experienced it through instances of Violet’s jealousy and Joe’s affair. This can appear in a student’s relationship with school. Personal experiences show that there are envious feelings towards other fellow students in scenarios of comparison, as Violet does with Dorcas. This is not a permanent feeling, though it can feel long–lasting. In times where students see people that are achieving things greater than their personal achievements, envy and wrath follow, and build the base for their self-love to falter. 

Students may then feel deficient love.  Just as Joe and Violet struggle to maintain the love they once had, in a lot of students’ later careers, especially in college, it can become easy for them to avoid the work that they need to do for school or even going to class. They are becoming less involved in their education and then may direct their attention to other things like partying, or drugs, or other social pursuits. The distractions create a sense of deficiency, not only in the work they perform and the rest needed to do that work, but in themselves, as the turbulent newness of college creates unsteady perceptions of the self. 

The last path through Purgatory, excessive love, can be manifested in student’s lives. Students may take up too much talking time within class, and are desperate to be heard and in turn can take away from another student. Higher education as an institution may feel greedy and hungry for wealth.. Students are expected to pay upwards of thousands of dollars for a resource, such as a degree, that feels valuable to their futures and thus the self they are becoming.. The financial aid and support from the government is limited and selective so a majority may not get what they need to cover their education. Some will not make their way out, just like Dorcas.

Thus, as Violet and Joe move through their own formation of Purgatory, experience misdirection, deficiency, and excessiveness in their relationship– and its struggles– we as students encounter a similar movement in our relationship to ourselves. We feel the misdirection of depending on school for self-worth, the deficiency apparent in the distractions we formulate or the dependency we place on schooling, and the excessiveness of taking up a space in our obsession for an academic system that itself is gluttonous for wealth. We engage with these levels, navigating our emerging adulthood, and try to construct perceptions of our identity that best fulfill the inherent need to love ourselves. Just as Morrison utilizes Purgatorio as a structural engine to build a process for healing, we– as students, as new adults, as humans– engage in a similar journey toward finding love for ourselves. 

Works Cited

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Purgatorio 10: Visible Speech.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-10/

—. “Purgatorio 13: Eyes Sewn Shut.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-13/

Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio. Translated by Mark Musa, Penguin Classics, 1985. 

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage, 1992. 

“Why not Climb up this Blissful Mountain Here?”: Standing at the Threshold in ENGL431

As I write this essay, I begin to think about where I have been and what I have learned in my education. I consider a simple question: how often have I found myself standing on the threshold of a class instead of simply stepping over it? I realized that in all my time as a student, I rarely stood on this threshold, because it was never something spoken of. A class, for most of my academic career, has been there to supply material to memorize and hopefully to achieve ‘good’ grades. It was only recently that I realized the importance of stopping and considering what knowledge awaits me and what I needed to be thinkING about as I cross that threshold.

I believe it is first mandatory to discuss the idea of being at the threshold of a class – something that I have felt I was planted in only once before in my educational career. To walk into the opening of a class, to step through the doorway and enter the vast room of knowledge, is one thing entirely different than to stop at the entrance, exhale, and take in the realization of the knowledge that will soon come. To stop. To take in. To step through – not run in, head-first. This concept is often foreign to students of academe, as many are taught to take a syllabus and a few ideas presented on the first day of class and only think in moments outside of mandatory memorization. To enter a threshold is to be continuously thinkiNG even after entering the course and to realize that this will be a journey of growth for every individual involved. This is a concept difficult to grasp after the experience of being taught to rush through coursework to arrive at the finish line of the class. To be asked to stand on the threshold and think is to take a breath and realize what it is all for.

This being said, there are several thresholds I believe I am standing on in this class. One of the most vital for me to grasp is the understanding the text at hand. Beloved is a text unlike any other. As we began reading, I felt as though I was getting lost in the way of Morrison’s writing and feared I would not be able to immerse myself in it fully. The character of Beloved, especially, was an aspect of the novel that I could not quite figure out – something I found both frustrating and intriguing. I am a student who yearns to understand, in every aspect. If in my reading I stumble upon an idea or concept that is unfamiliar to me, I will not move past it until I familiarize myself with it. I wanted to get Beloved. I needed to get Beloved. This was not so easily achieved, as Beloved represents everything and nothing to everyone in the story. Beloved is the inescapable, the parasitic, the gateway to growth, the holy, the malevolent, and the savior. Beloved falls into various roles that suit whichever other character she is with. She is an entity in this novel that is never quite understood, and therein lies one of the most exquisite pieces of the novel. As I sit and ponder this idea of Beloved’s various roles in this story, I am drawn to Morrison’s words … “Beloved You are my sister You are my daughter You are my face; you are me […] You are my Beloved You are mine” (Morrison 255). I allow myself forgiveness for not fully grasping Beloved as a character and as I stand on the threshold, as perhaps Beloved is not meant to be fully understood. Perhaps that is one of Morrison’s choices in the story that I was unaware of at the start. 

As we stand at the threshold, I am also thinkING about the ideas of identity and ownership. On one of the first days of this class, we read Morrison’s interview with the New York Times, and a few of her words stood out to me and remained with me as we read Beloved. Morrison stated:

“One of the nice things that women do is nurture and love something other than themselves -they do that rather nicely. Instinctively, perhaps, but they are certainly taught to do it, socialized to do it, or genetically predisposed to do it -whatever it is, it’s something that I think the majority of women feel strongly about. But mother love is also a killer.”

I think of this often. This idea of motherhood being an identity on its own is something that attaches itself to Sethe in Beloved. Before anything else, Sethe is a mother. She takes this title and thereafter her ownership of Beloved (“You are mine You are mine You are mine” (Morrison 256)) and, in a way, hides behind it. Sethe is afraid of the past and yet, is haunted by it each day.

I think about Morrison’s words – “mother love is also a killer” – and realize that one way of interpreting this is that her role as a mother is what kills her sense of self and identity, Sethe feels that Beloved is the best part of herself – she clings to this ghost of her daughter – without any real sense of identity beyond it. As I stand on the threshold, I wonder what that title of motherhood means to one’s identity. What does it mean to Sethe? Does feeling that she still has that ownership over Beloved allow her a sense of peace? A thing to soothe her aching soul, longing for the child she took away from herself? This idea of motherhood and identity … more importantly, the idea of the ownership of Beloved – I find myself thinking about what it all means, and what, truly, defines the self. What makes us whole? How much of ourselves is our own when we give over to love – whether it be a mother’s or a lover’s? Furthermore, how does the past shape this identity? Morrison also said “memory never really leaves you unless you have gone through it and confronted it head on” – and Beloved was Sethe’s physical embodiment of her past and serves to be a way of both healing and hurting her.

I realized, too, that I am not the only one crossing a threshold. As my classmates and I stand on the edge of this course, the characters within Beloved are at the threshold of something entirely different. Discovery, pain, healing, possession, love… and like us, the students, they have a guide much like Dante. I think of Virgil’s words in Dante’s Inferno when he says: “I think it best you follow me / for your own good, and I shall be your guide / and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114) and am reminded that like Virgil is Dante’s guide, like Amy was Sethe’s guide, like Beloved is a guide for all, in a way – we, as students, are each other’s guide as well as being guided by our professor in our path in understanding “an eternal place” (Dante 114) … in other words, Morrison’s works. Taking on works such as Morrison’s can be daunting, but it is vital to not feel discouraged if we feel lost at any point on our journey. As virgil says, “…why retreat to so much misery? / Why not climb up this blissful mountain here?” (Dante 76-77).

Another aspect that I am thinkING about as I stand at the threshold of this class, albeit a more personal one, is my reluctance to fully plunge myself into my literature classes out of fear. Having student-taught last semester, I am relearning how to be a student. I had grown so accustomed to being in front of the class, that now, as I sit at my desk, I find myself wondering – am I doing enough? Am I understanding the work at the same level as my classmates? Am I speaking too much, or too little? Am I grasping the “right” concepts in each class? Is there a “right” answer to the questions asked? I feel these questions prodding me as I stand on the threshold of the class – and above all, I find myself thinking about failure. I do not want to fail the works that I read. I do not want to fail the expectations I have set for myself. To quote Morrison, this fear of failure and desire to be the same student I was prior to student teaching is my own “Something else you have to figure in before you can figure it out” – and I know that this will come in time. With each page read, I feel a connection back to my student role and find myself once more in my journey of academia.

To stand at the threshold is to be open and willing for whatever knowledge lies beyond. It is to have grace, courage, and courtesy and be prepared to take on the role of a learner as this course begins. To encourage classmates, to be consistently thinkING, and to remember that above all, this is a learning process. As this semester continues onward, I am looking forward to growing as a student and being a guest in Morrison’s novels.

Percival Everett’s The Trees within this Semester’s Story

“I cannot recall the words of my first poem

but I remember a promise 

I made my pen

never to leave it


in somebody else’s blood” – Audre Lorde

When beginning this course, this was one of the epigraphs that struck me most. Out of all the epigraphs written, it was the one that made me stumble and second guess what it truly meant. I hesitated over Lorde’s words… how could one leave their pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood”? I considered different interpretations and consulted others in the class, but it was only as the work in this course progressed, and my growth in the class escalated as I slowed down, that I began to understand what this epigraph meant, and why it was included as an epigraph in this course alongside the others – why its presence was so important. This course revolves around concepts such as sustainability, possession, recursion and repetition, freedom, accountability, and several others, which promote student growth, understanding, and accepted accountability for things we have done within “other people’s homes”, so to speak. We, as students, speak on these matters in class, but how do we respectfully do so, and with care and accountability? It is through this journey in the semester that this specific epigraph has been defined to me – when one is to write on a victim of historical horror or mistreatment, or on a matter as important as Black rights, it must never be done in vain, and the writing must never be left without justice or honor attached to it. Those who write on these matters should be doing so with grace, care, and diligence. The author who wrote this epigraph, Audre Lorde, was one who dedicated her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices such as  racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia – she was one who fought for justice and never wrote on topics that she did not strive to grant justice and honor to, such as African American rights and Black individuals who were wronged in the years before and during the time she began to write. She was not one to leave her pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood” – she was one to grant that “somebody else” the justice they deserved and the honor they had been deprived of. In that pen she holds, there is power and the ability to change the narrative. This epigraph has remained prominent throughout our reading in this African American Literature course, but the one text which has cemented this epigraph within its pages is Percival Everett’s The Trees.

The Trees is a novel about resurrection, repetition and recursion, and accountability – all course concepts from our African American literature class thus far. Everett grants justice in his novel by taking a real life victim of lynching and racism, Emmett Till, and presenting a fictional continuation in which individuals seek revenge and justice by murdering not only those related to those who murdered Till, but also other racist individuals across the country, which evolves into a revoluation and revolt against racism and the murder of innocent Black individuals. The epigraph mentioned above, “I cannot recall the words of my first poem / but I / remember a promise / I made my pen /never to leave it / lying / in somebody else’s blood” by Audre Lorde is one that reemerged in my mind as I sat and read The Trees. I considered Lorde’s words in correlation with this novel of revolt, revenge, and revolution … how Everett took one young Black man’s tragic end and crafted a world in which he, in a way, was avenged. Everett did not allow his work to remain “lying / in somebody else’s blood” – that somebody being Emmett Till – and instead wrote a dedicated piece to him, of sorts – granting him the justice that today’s modern world so deeply seeks on equality and justice, and planting his case in the center of it. In this world Everett has made, the name of Emmett Till was not forgotten, and instead served as the base of this revolution that arises in his honor in The Trees. 

Emmett Till was not the only person that Everett granted this justice to. In the novel, the character of Damon Thruff is written to write down a list of names which fills up almost nine and a half pages – the names of victims of lynching. Thruff informs Mama Z, “When I write their names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be. Don’t they?” (Everett 190). By having Thruff write all of these names down – and also, Everett cementing these names in his novel for all to read – it grants justice and freedom to these victims. Everett refuses to leave his pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood” and instead, has the character Thruff erase them. He states “When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free”, essentially granting these victims the freedom they had been deprived of due to their names and stories being forgotten over time. This is one of the core elements of The Trees being brought forth over and over again (repetition and recursion, one may say). Everett followed the words of Lorde’s epigraph through his novel’s revolution and fight for justice for those that some never even notice. The character of Gertrude reiterates this idea once she is discovered as one of the individuals responsible for the original three killings of Wheat Bryant, Junior Junior Milam, and “the Milam in Chicago” (Everett 292), stating “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread out over a hundred years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices” (291). One of Evertt’s key purposes in this novel is to make people notice. To present the names of victims and some of their stories (primarily Emmett Till) and grant them closure – grant them justice. Though it is fictional justice, Everett does what the real world has not yet to the extent that he writes, stating things such as “In New York City, a fat police officer shot a young Black man in Central Park, only to find dirt-encrusted Black men waiting for him at his patrol car.” (Everett 294). Despite current, real movements of justice for those wrongly killed or attacked, Everett presents one that is far more intense, far greater than what has been present in modern times. In this world he has crafted, he does not leave anyone “lying in somebody else’s blood” – he takes that pain and the story of those wronged and writes them a new story… a continuation where instead of forgetting his crimes, that police officer who wrongly shot a young Black man in Central Park is faced with his crimes and confronted with the pain and hurt he has caused. A revolution is crafted with the story of Emmett Till and the ‘blood’ he has left in history. This is perhaps why Everett chooses to end the novel in a way that could be interpreted as both hopeful and confusing. He writes: “‘Shall I stop him?’ Outside in the distance, through the night air, the muffled cry came through, Rise. Rise. ‘Shall I stop him?’” (Everett 308). This ending – so powerful and illuminating – can be interpreted as Everett being Damon Thruff (the writer of all the victims’ names in this scene of the novel) and the readers being Mama Z. In this scene, we, as Mama Z, ask those who do not seek justice for those wronged, if we should stop Everett from doing just that. We ask, as the modern day mistreatment of Black individuals continues through things such as police brutality, should we really stop what Everett is doing, that being, granting justice and freedom to individuals such as Emmett Till … Bill Gilmer … Dorothy Malcom … W.W. Watt … Bartley James … Stella Young … and so many others? As the people wronged are able to rise, shall we stop them as others would like them to? Or shall we continue to seek justice? Continue to learn, to grow, to do whatever it is we can to ensure equality and making sure no other pen is left “lying / in somebody else’s blood”?

This course epigraph, as well as Everett’s The Trees, in a way, allows me to interpret my own semester’s story in this class. Admittedly, when I entered African American Literature, I had never taken a class dealing with the same or similar subject, and I knew I was going to be put on a learning journey. I knew I would not know everything, nor would I be able to try and know everything, for I was and am a ‘guest in someone else’s home’, as our instructor puts it. I was going to stumble, to be surprised by things I had never learned before, and I would have the privilege of writing on author’s and their works as well as be involved in discussions on author’s and their works where I could learn alongside my peers in the classroom. Now, as I sit and type this final essay, I look back on my first day in the class and compare it to the present, and I feel grateful to learn what I have learned, and had the opportunity to write on and speak on things that taught me more than I would have imagined. I felt as though my understanding of the works we have covered in class resembles the journey, that in some ways, resembles Jim and Ed’s unraveling and understanding of the case in The Trees – they begin with facts and ideas, and end with an understanding of what justice truly means, and the importance of letting others rise. I end my time in this class with similar ideas… and I will promise myself that I will never leave my own pen “lying / in somebody else’s blood”. This being said, I undertake this reflection, something does happen to my understanding of literature – that there are some things that are vital to understand, even if the answers must be searched for over a long period of time (perhaps even a semester’s worth). I learned to never assume, to always seek answers and learn in any way possible. To understand. To grow. More importantly, to treat my misunderstandings with grace and the determination to do better. Going forward, it is vital to take the knowledge learned on concepts such as sustainability, possession, recursion and repetition, freedom, accountability, and others, slow down, and use them as stepping stones to understand the literature we study and the lives we live.

Essay 1 – African American Tradition and the Guiding Principles of Call and Response

Everyone has a story to tell. In telling these stories, oftentimes, there is a shared sense of understanding and connection to one another based on shared experiences or feelings. While reading through Call and Response, The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited by Patricia Liggins Hill, this idea becomes increasingly apparent. In an anthology so vast, what molds the works together? Or more specifically, what is the Call and Response anthology’s governing aesthetics? Where do its guiding principles lie in its particular presentation of the American American tradition? Though the detailed answer in its entirety may exceed the limits of a short paper, the conclusion lies in the basic principles of togetherness, pride, and resilience – all of which make a harmonious blending of aesthetics, including cultural nationalism and folk aesthetic.

While reading through the works in Call and Response, the element of togetherness is one of the most striking. Looking primarily at the poetry in the text, this idea is one that is underlying throughout. A key example of this is found within Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones)’s piece entitled “SOS”. In this poem, Baraka writes, “Calling all black people, man woman child / Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in” (2-3). Though this poem is brief, it is effective in its nature, serving as an announcement to all black individuals to come and gather where the speaker stands, and urging them to “come / on in” (Baraka 6-7). Though the speaker does not explain the urgency behind their tone, or why their audience must come to join them right away, it is evident that there need not be an explanation – for the togetherness and unity that the speaker professes is enough to gather their desired audience. It is an audience that the speaker knows will understand whatever it is they have to say based on shared experiences and understanding of one another without saying exactly why or how. The inclusion of the word “all” in “Calling all black people” (Baraka 2) aids in the development of this idea – that all must gather, all shall join, all shall be there for one another in this time of need. A similar sentiment is brought forth in Carolyn Rodger’s work, “Poem for Some Black Women”. Rodger begins her work by expressing that she is “lonely” (1) but follows this idea by expressing that “we know each other’s miseries / too well” (6-7). The piece is very repetitive in nature – using the phrase “we” throughout the work, such as “we are / lonely women” (Rodger 8-9), “we live in fear. / we are lonely. we are talented, dedicated, well read” (Rodger 11-13). This constant repetition of “we” allows that sense of community and togetherness to come forth. Rodger does not write for herself, she writes for all hard-working, fearful, yet confident black women who have a united sense of trying to “make too much sense out / of the world” (Rodger 46-47). This idea of togetherness and unity is a common link connecting the works found in Call and Response, and is also the reason that one of the underlying aesthetics of this textbook is a folk aesthetic – one that privileges the cultural production of ordinary, everyday individuals who seek a similar sense of belonging and hope in times of worry or pain. That feeling of togetherness and unity is one that is universal – not only meant for the “higher” class society or those who are more privileged in life. Unity is for all, and Call and Response encompasses that.

Yet another guiding principle of Call and Response is found in the idea of pride. An author no stranger to pride within this book of texts is Lucille Clifton – brought about in her work “what the mirror said”. This poem is seemingly directed at the reader, as the speaker informs them: “you a wonder / you a city / of a woman” (Clifton 2-4). This entire poem exudes the confidence and pride of a black woman bestowing it upon another black female-identifying individual as she reminds them that they are “not a noplace / anonymous / girl” (Clifton 14-16) and instead, they are filled with worth and dignity. The reader is not just someone to be forgotten or brushed away – they are “some / damn / body!” (Clifton 19-21) with a heart, a voice, a soul to be praised. They have worth and deserve to be prideful in themselves. This idea of pride is included in another one of Clifton’s poems, “homage to my hips”. This poem speaks of a black woman’s confidence and pride she had in her body, specifically her hips, as she writes, “these hips / are free hips” (5-6) and “these hips are mighty hips / these hips are magic hips” (11-12). She even claims that her hips can “put a spell on a man and / spin him like a top” (14-15). Her confidence in her hips is unwavering – going hand in hand with her pride to be a woman and her pride to be black. She makes it known that her hips “don’t like to be held back …. / have never been enslaved” (Clifton 6-7). Her hips hold a great sense of strength and confidence for her, and also play into the element of freedom – for that is exactly what her hips grant her.

Perhaps the most vital principle present in the works of Call and Response is that of resilience – being the capacity to recover from difficulties; strength. Resilience is an ever-present element of African American literature, most notably in poets such as Maya Angelou in her celebrated work “Still I Rise”. The entirety of “Still I Rise” follows the speaker of Angelou’s poem explaining that despite the trials and tribulations of her life, she emerges stronger than ever. Although she knows that others want to see her “broken / bowed head and lowered eyes” (Angelou 13-14), she claims that “You may kill me with your hatefulness, / But still, like air, I’ll rise” (Angelou 23-24). Angelou’s speaker exudes resilience in the fact that she does not let anything stop her from rising back up each time she is pulled down by those who wish to see her fail and wither. She even calls back to her family’s ancestry as she writes “Bringing gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise”. She finds herself rising above all of the hate that her family has endured and that she had endured, personally, as a black woman, determined to emerge “into daybreak that’s wondrously clear” (Angelou 37). Audre Lorde’s poem “Coal” reveals a similar principle in the idea of resilience, as her speaker explains that they were in “the total black … / from the earth’s inside” (Lorde 2-3) – equating the color of their skin to where they originated from with the line “I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside” (Lorde 25), before continuing that they are now a “jewel in the open light” (Lorde 26). Despite being kept from the light for so long, the speaker showed resilience just as Angelou’s speaker did, waiting for their moment to burst into a ray of light reflecting off of them and speak their voice once and for all. This ideal is also reflected in Lorde’s poem “Solstice” in which she writes, “I will eat the last signs of my weakness / remove the scars of old childhood wars / … / I shall be forever” (Lorde 27-32). Once again, Lorde demonstrates her resilience despite the “wars” she had lived through as a black woman. She speaks of the skin of her past and how she shall “shed it / like a monitor lizard” (Lorde 23-24) to reemerge stronger than before, rising from a past of hurt. Keeping this in mind, it can be noted that this element of Call and Response can be seen in the aesthetic of Cultural nationalism – a way in which marginalized individuals are able collectively to live in their shared experiences through self-expressive forms. This can be seen through resilience, as time and time again black individuals have endured horrendous treatment and yet, persevered and remained remarkably strong and still rose about the hate that rained down on them.

Overall, the guiding principles that undergird Call and Response’s particular presentation of the “African American tradition” follow three basic elements – togetherness, pride, and resilience – all while harmoniously blending the aesthetics of cultural nationalism and folk aesthetics. The texts included in Call and Response are vast and all individual in their own right, though, after reading through a plethora of works, it becomes apparent that these principles mentioned previously are what universally guide the text and remains to be the underlying factor in each of them. These poems spoken of bring forth ideas of unity, strength, and the ability to stand true to what is right after rising above the tribulations they had to overcome. The poems play off of one another – a response to a call of strength and power – through the editor’s conscious structuring of the anthology in this call-and-response format in which, poet after poet, these principles of togetherness, pride, and resilience reemerge again and again through the different perspectives and stories being told by the authors. Though everyone has their own story to tell, it is the underlying elements of unity and togetherness that make these works so remarkably profound.

Works Cited:

Patricia Liggins Hill. (2009). Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Houghton Mifflin.